Visiting Tokyo is akin to experiencing an extreme adrenaline rush into a neon-bright future world. Entangled in a rather messy web of overhead cables, characterised by the seemingly constant noise of people and traffic and roads clogged with bumper-to-bumper vehicles, this futuristic conurbation of steel and concrete could, at first, appear like an urban nightmare. However, taking a step back from the frantic main roads and bustling centres are tranquil backstreets and peaceful parks. Wander beyond the hi-tech facade and discover charming fragments of the old city; see temples and shrines wreathed in wisps of incense, wooden houses fronted by manicured bonsai trees and parks filled with flourishing cherry blossoms.
It is an unpredictable metropolis fuelled by a blur of largely conflicting images, and it is amazing! As the world’s largest city, the heart of which is home to over 8 million people, Tokyo is a uniquely magnificent metropolitan environment. A centuries-long battle of organising itself to cope with the incessant demands of millions of inhabitants has made Tokyo something of a model metropolis. Trains are reliable, always running on time and to every corner of the city, crime barely even exists and shops and vending machines provide everything your could ever need, 24 hours a day.
With so much to take in, first-time visitors to Tokyo should be prepared for an impactful assault on their senses – visiting Tokyo certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted. The city’s incredible wealth and relative lack of planning restrictions has provided architects almost unprecedented freedom to experiment. Likewise, within the many uber-chic bars, restaurants and clubs, you will get to experience today what the rest of the world will see tomorrow.
This Tokyo travel guide aims to give you all the hints, tips and advice needed to make the most of this astonishing city. From what to see and do, when to go, where to stay, where to eat and where to party – make sure you are fully prepared to take full advantage of your trip to Tokyo.
Tokyo Travel Guide
A Brief History of Tokyo
No visit to Tokyo is complete without being even slightly aware of its brilliant and rich history. As soon as you step foot in this densely-packed urban metropolis, you will certainly see signs of its intricate past, whether it is in it’s beautiful temples and shrines or it’s narrow, winding backstreets. So, I couldn’t write a Tokyo travel guide without touching on the history of this very future-oriented, forward-thinking city.
1457 is largely considered to be the city’s founding date, when minor lord Ōta Dōkan built his castle, overlooking the Sumida-gawa and the bay. However, perhaps a more accurate founding year is 1590, when the feudal lord Tokugawa Leyasu decided to obscure the castle-town for his power base.
The Edo Era
By 1640, Edo Castle had become the most formidable in the whole of Japan, complete with a five-story structure, a double moat and a spiralling maze of canals. In order to snare unwelcome intruders, a bewildering network of narrow, undulating lanes, sudden dead ends and unbridged canals were built.
The daimyō (lords) were required by the shogun to spend some of the year in Edo and were granted huge plots for their estates on higher ground to the west of the castle. Meanwhile, artisans, merchants and other members of the lower class were confined to Shitamachi, a low-lying, overcrowded area to the east that was prone to flooding. Although much less distinct, this striking division between the ‘high’ and ‘low’ city is still visible today. During two centuries of peace, Edo grew to be the most populous city in the world and life down in Shitamachi flourished with a wealthy merchant class and a vigorous subculture of Geisha and Kabuki. Yet, inevitable was also the squalor, poverty and violence that was prevalent during this era.
The Meiji Era
In 1868, just a year after the Meiji restoration, the emperor took up permanent residence in the city, now renamed Tokyo. Japan started to quickly embrace Western technologies which rapidly caused the face of Tokyo to transform: the castle lost most of its grounds, canals were blocked up and Shitamachi’s wealthier merchant population decamped to more desirable Yamanote. However, unfortunately, the city still attracted disaster; in 1923 the Great Kantō Earthquake devastated half of Tokyo and killed 100,000 people.
Yet, that wasn’t the end of the trauma; more devastation was set to arrive during World War II. In just 3 days of sustained bombing in March 1945, hundreds of thousands of Tokyo residents were killed and great swathes of the city was burnt down, including Edo Castle and most of Shitamachi. As a result, Tokyo was reduced from a significant population of nearly 7 million to around just 3 million. This time, city regeneration was mainly fuelled by an influx of American funds and food aid under the Allied Occupation, as well as a manufacturing boom sparked by the Korean War in 1950.
When Emperor Hirohito opened the Tokyo Olympic Games in October 1964, Tokyo was returning with a vengeance as visitors were stunned by the brand new Shinkansen trains running west to Ōsaka. The economy continued to boom well into the late 1980s, when the city’s land prices reached astonishing heights, matched by an excess of all kinds – from gold-wrapped sushi to mink toilet-seat covers. However, this luxury didn’t last too long; in 1991 the financial bubble finally burst. Along with the revelations of political corruption, financial mismanagement and the release of deadly Sarin gas on Tokyo trains by the AUM cult, this led to a more sombre Tokyo throughout the rest of the 1990s.
Progressing into the 21st century, the economy slowly began to recover and so did the city’s vitality. The new millennium saw events such as the 2002 football World Cup and the 2019 rugby World Cup, plus a rapidly growing interest in Japanese pop culture and its delicious food scene. All this helped contribute to curious overseas visitors choosing to visit Tokyo.
When to Visit Tokyo
In my opinion, the best time to visit Tokyo is in the spring, from April to early May. At the start of this period (hanami), flourishing cherry blossoms give the city a soft pink hue mixed with pleasant temperatures. Yet, October and November are also excellent times to visit Tokyo as the pretty blossoms are transformed to a firey colouration of autumn leaves in the city’s parks and gardens.
I would advise trying to avoid the sweltering height of summer (late July to early September), when the humidity sees Tokyo’s citizens scurrying from one air-conditioned building to another. By contrast, during the months from January to March, temperatures can drop to freezing. While the temperatures are cold, the crisp blue winter skies are rarely disturbed by rain showers. However, make sure you carry an umbrella if you’re visiting Tokyo during tsuyu, the rainy season in June and July.
Where to Stay in Tokyo
Unfortunately, overnight accommodation in Tokyo is super expensive. Living space in the city is scarce and the tiny hotel rooms reflect this. You will probably struggle to find anything fairly reasonable for under 100 euros per night. However, don’t lose hope! One fantastic alternative to an overpriced hotel room is one of Japan’s famous capsule hotels. These are a great inexpensive option for those who are travelling to Tokyo on a budget.
I would advise booking your Tokyo accommodation as far in advance as possible in order to get the best value for money – the best hotels get snapped up very quickly. While hotels outside the centre of the city are quite a bit cheaper, it can be tricky getting in to see all the sites. It means joining Tokyo’s working population on their daily commute into the city centre and back again every morning and evening. Taking a trip on the metro certainly isn’t very fun when it is overcrowded at rush hour.
What to See & Do in Tokyo
When you first start planning your trip to Tokyo, you will more than likely be increasingly overwhelmed by the incredible size of the city and how much there is to see and do there. To help you plan your Tokyo visit as seamlessly as possible and find your way around this vast city, I have grouped the best attractions in Tokyo into neighbourhoods.
To Do in Shinjuku
The neighbourhood of Shinjuku is situated in western Tokyo and is one of the most exciting areas of the city.
Piss Alley – Omoide Yokocho
Charmingly referred to as ‘Piss Alley’ this small, narrow alleyway is actually called Omoide Yokocho and is situated just around the corner from Shinjuku Station. At just over a metre wide, this teeny tiny alley does look a little out of place in neat and tidy Tokyo, but it is just a interesting and exciting to visit. On both sides of the alley sit rows of small restaurants offering delicious Japanese delicacies, from soups, fish and grilled meat.
Kabukichō – The Red Light District
Kabukichō is a vast amusement district that stretches from right in front of Shinjuku Station. Although it is still a nice place to visit during the day, especially if your go on a daytime photo walk, this district comes alive at night. As the dark draws in, neon signs light up and the hustle and bustle of nightlife begins. As well as red light establishments, this area is home to countless restaurants, clubs, bars and arcades.
Golden Gai is a small area, located within Kabukichō, that comprises lots of tiny bars. The tiny, uneven streets make for some great edgy pictures during the day. It tends to be quite quiet during the day, when the bars are still shut, so you can get some greats pics in peace. In the evenings, tourists begin to swarm in to the teeny tiny bars and taking good photos can be more of a challenge. Most of the bars here are no bigger than a living room, with just enough space for around 6-8 people.
The Robot Restaurant is actually a slightly misleading name given that it isn’t much of a restaurant at all. In fact, it is more of a show, and a rather wacky one at that. It is a completely one-of-a-kind experience – it’s loud, it’s dazzling and it’s completely crazy. Although admission to the Robot Restaurant is pretty steep at over 60 euros, I would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Tokyo.
Metropolitan Government Building
Tokyo has some outstanding viewpoints across the city, but if you wanted to see them all, the cost would soon stack up. So, if you’re looking for a cheaper alternative to see the great views of Tokyo, the Metropolitan Government Building is completely free. The building consists of two towers, both of which have an observation deck. I would suggest going to both towers because you get a different perspective of Tokyo from both.
Harajuku is a neighbourhood, located in the district of Shinjuku, known for its vibrant youth culture. On Sundays you can see the lively cosplay scene meeting on the bridge between the train station and Yoyogi Park. Cosplay is a popular subculture in Japan and involves, mostly young people, dressing up in the style of manga and anime figures. The area also has a lot of stylish shops and plenty of trendy bars and cafes.
To Do in Shibuya
Shibuya is a neighbourhood located east of downtown Tokyo and is especially popular among younger crowds, packed with shops and other sources of entertainment.
Shibuya Crossing must be the most famous pedestrian crossing in the entire world. At this intersection, all pedestrian lights turn green at the same time, causing hundreds or even sometimes thousands of people to cross at the same time. This spectacle is an absolute must-see on any trip to Tokyo as it is so characteristic of this crazy, overcrowded and hectic city.
Where to Eat in Tokyo
When it comes to gastronomic experiences, there are few places that compare to Tokyo. This city is one of the world’s leading gourmet capitals, where eating and drinking is an art form. No where offers you a better selection of exhilarating culinary experiences than Tokyo’s many bars and restaurants. Whether you’re looking for award-winning restaurants, authentic local eateries or fancily-prepared cocktails on the top floor of an even fancier skyscraper, this gastronomic metropolis has you covered.
The city comprises an insane number, range and quality of restaurants, serving practically any world cuisine you could think of available alongside all the more traditional Japanese dishes. And, to make it all even better, eating and drinking in Tokyo doesn’t have to break the bank. In fact, it tends to be significantly less expensive than other popular foodie capitals across the globe. Even Michelin-starred restaurants offer good-value set-meal specials that you can take advantage of. There is also an abundance of fast-food options and cafe’s offering cheap, light meals. A great option is to head to the restaurant floors of department stores and shopping malls, where you will often find a wide choice of cuisines under one convenient roof. So, make sure you pack a big appetite when you travel to Tokyo.
You won’t have to look too hard to find restaurants serving up iconic Japanese dishes, including sushi, ramen noodles and tempura throughout Tokyo. Yet, certain neighbourhoods are better-known for particular types of cuisine. For the freshest fish, you should try one of the sushi restaurants in Tsukiji, Ginza or anywhere else around the Tsukiji Fish Market. If it’s ramen you’re looking for, then head to the busting business district of Shinjuku. Otakibashi-dori, the street stretching from the west exit of Shinjuku Station toward Okubo Station, has a particularly large selection of ramen spots. Or, in Tokyo’s more traditional districts, like Kanda, Nihonbashi and Asakusa, you will find plenty of family-run restaurants that have been handed down through multiple generations. These are the best places to visit for lightly battered tempura and soba buckwheat noodles. Once you’ve tried these Japanese classics, make sure you sample the rest of Tokyo’s exciting cuisine options, including udon noodles, yakitori and kushikatsu.
With over 200 Michelin-starred restaurants, Tokyo is a world-leader when it comes to gourmet deliciousness. There are an endless number of undiscovered fine-dining options across the city – many in the least expected of places. However, for the stand-out, super-swanky high-rise dining options, the skyscraper districts of Otemachi and Marunouchi are your best bet.
Only in Tokyo
While Tokyo offers all kinds of Japanese delicacies, the city has its own local specialities that are difficult to find anywhere else in the world. These include dishes such as monjayaki, fukugawa-meshi and dojo-nabe. Manjayaki is a kind of comfort food that consists of a multi-ingredient flour-based batter cooked on a hot place. Fukagawa-meshi is a rice dish topped with a miso-based stew of clams and leeks. Dojo-nabe is a freshwater fish dish topped with chopped leeks and spices. All these Tokyo-specific dishes are incredibly delicious and definitely worth the try.
As well as unique local dishes, Tokyo is packed full of one-of-a-kind dinner entertainment venues. Many of these unique dinner venues are themed like Alice in Wonderland. Alice in Magic Land is an Alice in Wonderland-themed restaurant in Shinjuku.
Eat and Drink Like a Local
Want to really immerse yourself in the local Tokyo culture and experience? Go ahead and follow the suited and booted masses as they clock off work – you are sure to stumble upon drinking districts under trains tracks and labyrinth-like alleys, called “yokocho”, lined with hole-in-the-wall bars and eateries and lit with paper lanterns and retro neon signs. In more recent years, trendy new train-track venues have emerged in up-and-coming areas of the city. The atmosphere in these trendy spots tends to be very laid-back and friendly and the narrow alleys are a great way to experience Tokyo drinking culture alongside the locals. If you really want to fit in with the residents, try sake, a distilled spirit called “shochu” or a fruity mixed drink called “chuhai.”
Nightlife in Tokyo
As the Tokyo sun sets, the neon lights begin to flicker on, and the city’s after-dark alter ego kicks in. More relaxed and care-free than its bustling, conformist daytime counterpart, nighttime in Tokyo is time to let your hair down and have fun. From the bright lights and crowds of downtown Shibuya to the skyscrapers and dazzling allure of the Marunouchi and Ginza districts to late-night art galleries, fine dining and alfresco chilling, Tokyo’s nightlife scene is like no other you will ever have experienced.
As you can probably imagine by now, Tokyo has a lively event schedule, with many either held exclusively in the evening or running through until late at night. You should definitely try to do some research before you visit to see what’s going on while you’re there. In winter, you can think light-up events and Christmas markets, while cherry blossom season is the time to party in the park until sunrise. Other events throughout the year include sake festivals, beer festivals, live music events, traditional summer festivals and firework displays.
With hot, humid summer days and sometimes unpredictable weather being prevalent in Tokyo, open-air rooftop bars are a great option to have. Given their popularity, you might think that they’d be quite hard to find. However, Tokyo has your back with an endless supply of city-view bars and restaurants on the top floors of most skyscrapers in the city. As you might expect, these bars tend to be a little pricier than your average alleyway venue but they are definitely worth experiencing.
Karaoke Bars & Boxes
It has often been claimed that karaoke, literally translated as ’empty orchestra’, was invented in an Ōsaka record store in the early 1970s. Today, the mainstay of this lucrative business is the karaoke box, a building jam-packed with cushioned booths, kitted out with a full karaoke system. You can rent one of these boxes by the hour and they prove particularly popular with youngsters, woman and families.